Exactly 30 years ago to the day, Hoosiers — the greatest sports movie ever made — was released. (Something to make you feel old: We’re four years away from there being the same amount of time between when Hoosiers came out and the present as between when the story line in Hoosiers took place and when the movie hit theaters.) There’s a lot to love, from the soundtrack to the numerous redemption stories to Norman Dale making a move on Myra Fleener immediately after he explains what went through his mind as he hit one of his players in the face. But what sets Hoosiers apart as an all-time classic is the same thing that makes Indiana natives love it so much: The little details perfectly encapsulate the high school basketball experience in small-town Indiana.
There are the townspeople who are waaaay too invested in a high school basketball team. There’s the my-way-or-the-highway hard-ass coach who is new in town, doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, and yet can’t figure out why the locals don’t like him. There’s the drunk who can’t stop raving about his glory days. There’s the kid who quits during the first practice because he didn’t realize it would be so demanding, and the dad who drags that kid back, forces him to apologize to the coach, and promises there won’t be any problems moving forward. There are decorated storefronts on Main Street, super-religious characters, helicopter parents, and cornfields as far as the eye can see.
These aren’t just tropes used to prop up a bastardization of what Hollywood thinks Middle America is like. These are actual things that can be found in every small town across Indiana. My favorite scene from Hoosiers is when Coach Dale’s first game starts to go badly, and there’s an assortment of shots of the Hickory crowd — comprised largely of old women — losing its collective mind. That’s basketball in Indiana in a nutshell: Even the people who don’t care about basketball still care to some degree, and the people who don’t play organized ball still have a little bit of game. Did you know that the actor who played Jimmy Chitwood got cut from his high school team every year that he tried out? The dude couldn’t even ride the bench on JV, yet has one of the most legendary shooting strokes of all time.
Hoosiers is a masterpiece that was shot in Indiana and used many local actors to tell a story that will forever be a part of the state’s basketball lore. But the film includes only the first chapter. Just because the cameras stopped rolling doesn’t mean the characters stopped living their lives. It’s been 30 years since the Hickory Huskers won the most improbable title in sports history, meaning it’s now the spring of 1982 in their tale. What have Coach Dale, Jimmy, Shooter, Ollie McClellan, Myra, and Co. been up to since? Hollywood thankfully refrained from ruining a classic with a pointless sequel, but as a native Hoosier who is all too familiar with the people and customs of rural Indiana, I believe I’m qualified to fill in the blanks.
When Shooter first meets Coach Dale, he tells a story about how he missed the game-winning shot in the 1933 sectional. This is supposed to provide some important context, painting Shooter as the guy who can’t let go of his high school heyday. But there’s a far more telling nugget in that story: Shooter was in high school 18 years earlier, which means he’s no older than 36! That’s right. The man on the left in this picture is supposed to be 36 years old.
I say that to say this: Shooter’s story is anything but happy. The movie never completely resolves his character arc, and I’m not sure that it needs to. Maybe Shooter sobers up for good. Maybe he doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter. Worst-case scenario: He dies almost immediately after the movie ends. Best-case scenario: He lives another 10 years. I mean, if he hits the bottle so hard that he looks like he’s 62 in his mid-30s, there’s no telling how many hard drugs he gets into in the 1960s. Shooter is a troubled soul who can’t outrun his demons. He’s not long for this world.
Jimmy Chitwood (No. 15)
Cletus Summers, who hires Coach Dale at Hickory and serves as his assistant before a heart attack puts him on bed rest (it’s probably fair to say Cletus doesn’t live to see 1982), has this to say about Jimmy: “In over 40 years of looking at the best this state’s ever had, I have never seen a better ballplayer than Jimmy Chitwood.” We don’t really know much about Cletus’s scouting acumen, but we know that his relationship with Coach Dale dates back to Buffalo State Teachers College in 1931, meaning he hasn’t lived in the Hickory bubble his entire life. That makes clear that Jimmy’s role in the run to the 1952 state title isn’t an aberration. He really is a transcendent talent.
The burning question, then, is what does Jimmy do with this talent? Myra, who serves as Jimmy’s guardian throughout the movie, tells Coach Dale that she wants Jimmy to pursue an academic scholarship, not to play college basketball. But she also says that part of her reasoning is based on the idea that even if Jimmy is as good as everyone says, no scouts are ever going to see him play at Hickory. That certainly isn’t true after Jimmy single-handedly carries the Huskers to a state title, which is why we can safely assume that Jimmy does, in fact, accept a scholarship.
Jimmy’s character was inspired by Bobby Plump, the real-life hero from Milan High School who hit the game winner in the 1954 state championship before going on to play at Butler. Maybe Myra persuades Jimmy to go to Butler too, so he can make a life for himself in Indianapolis. But for as much as Myra obsesses over getting Jimmy out of Hickory, Jimmy isn’t exactly receptive to change. (Remember: He doesn’t join the team at the start of the 1951–52 season because he doesn’t want to play for a new coach.) The film doesn’t reveal where Hickory is located in Indiana, but Myra mentions Wabash College in the movie, which sits in the western part of the state, in Crawfordsville. Most of Hoosiers was shot just north of Crawfordsville in New Richmond, so I’m going to take some liberties and assume that Hickory is right around there, too. If that’s the case, I’m saying Jimmy ends up at Purdue, about 20 miles north of Hickory.
Purdue was kind of bad in the early 1950s, and Indiana won a national title during what would have been Jimmy’s freshman season, so maybe he transfers to IU. But I doubt it. I’m saying Jimmy stays at Purdue, graduates in 1956, gets drafted into the NBA, and plays for the Fort Wayne Pistons for one season before they move to Detroit. Despite becoming the face of the franchise, he falls out of love with the game and gets homesick. So when the Pistons make Dave Bing the new star of the team and trade a washed-up 34-year-old Jimmy to Baltimore in 1968, he decides to retire for good.
What’s Jimmy up to in 1982? Well, he moves back to the southern edge of Lafayette after retiring. That way he can stay close to Hickory (where his heart will always be) while technically living in a “big city” (where Myra always wanted him to end up). In his first year of retirement, Jimmy goes to watch his collegiate alma mater play whenever he can, and pretends to be supportive when Rick Mount leads the Boilermakers to the 1969 national championship game. But deep down, he’s jealous that he never made an NCAA tournament and that everyone considers Mount a superior version of him. Jimmy’s insecurities breed a tumultuous relationship with Purdue that lasts a decade (just like Mount had). Then in 1980, a coach from Western Kentucky named Gene Keady gets hired and, in an effort to curry favor with Purdue fans, asks “living Boilermakers legend Jimmy Chitwood” to join his staff. Jimmy accepts the offer, and in 1982 the 48-year-old has just finished his second season as Keady’s top assistant.
Rade Butcher (No. 25)
Rade’s redemption story is told via two pivotal moments in the movie. The first comes when he mouths off to Coach Dale at halftime of Hickory’s opening game of the 1951–52 season, disregarding Dale’s make-four-passes-before-shooting rule by making it rain in the second half. Dale benches him to prove a point, even going so far as to leave Rade on the pine and electing to play with four guys when Merle Webb fouls out. This is supposed to show how Dale is the ultimate authority and that questioning him is inexcusable, even when he’s wrong. In the next game, though, Dale calls the opposing players “gorillas,” prompting one of them to put his finger in Dale’s chest. Rade comes out of nowhere to sock that player in the mouth; both Rade and Dale get ejected and they bond on the way back to the locker room, where they presumably talk about how they’ve both punched people in the face during basketball games.
Rade is well-meaning but rough around the edges, which makes me think he wouldn’t have survived in corporate America, but could’ve been successful running a blue-collar business. So I’m saying Rade starts a landscaping company in Crawfordsville. He owns a house with a two-car garage, he’s married to a wife who doesn’t remember why she loves him but loves him nonetheless, and the highlight of his life comes when his son makes the JV basketball team as a freshman. In other words: He’s living the Indiana dream.
Buddy Walker (No. 14)
Buddy is the stereotypical high school jock: He’s pretty decent at the sport he plays, but it’s obvious this is going to be it for him, so he milks that talent for all he can. The movie doesn’t offer up a ton of info about him, other than he’s the best defender on the team and he gets kicked out of Coach Dale’s first practice, but you can just tell he’s the guy who thinks he’s badass every time he takes booze from his old man’s liquor cabinet. There’s no doubt in my mind that Buddy has cheated on every girlfriend he’s had and steals his dad’s car every other weekend. I’m making a lot of assumptions, but I’m confident that Buddy wears his letter jacket 10 years after graduation and never holds a job for longer than five months, until his uncle hires him to work as a mechanic, a gig he holds in 1982.
Whit Butcher (No. 43)
I’ve seen Hoosiers somewhere around 100 times, and the only thing I can remember about Whit is when he says, “I ain’t no gizzard” as he walks out of practice with Buddy. That’s it. Whit seems like a complete imbecile, something that becomes evident when, after living with his parents for eight years following high school graduation, he decides to open a butcher shop solely because his last name is “Butcher.” With no prior business experience and no idea how to butcher meat, Whit banks on the townspeople of Hickory being fans of both puns and the fact that he’s a member of the 1952 state title team. They are not. Whit files for bankruptcy and works at his brother’s landscaping company.
Ollie McClellan (No. 13)
Many think Ollie will follow in Shooter’s footsteps and become the town drunk who talks about the time he hit two free throws to win the regional championship for Hickory. Instead, Ollie gets a partial academic scholarship to DePauw and takes classes for a year and a half before dropping out when his scholarship money runs dry. He gets a hero’s welcome upon returning to Hickory, where people call him a “genius” so often that he convinces himself they’re screwing with him, driving him to drink. Unlike Shooter, though, Ollie keeps things in check and does well as the manager of a local bank.
Merle Webb (No. 12)
Merle, the heart and soul of the Huskers, joins the military right after high school. He becomes a drill sergeant, which seems a little surprising given his mild temperament. In retrospect, though, his intensity was always there: He basically tried to kiss Ollie when giving him a pep talk before Ollie’s famous free throws.
Merle never makes it back to Hickory, and the locals remain split as to what ultimately happens to him. Some say he gets killed in Vietnam. Others swear they’ve heard stories that he is honorably discharged and lives in Washington, D.C., working for the federal government. Merle is an only child whose parents died in a car accident in 1957, so there’s really no way of knowing his fate.
Strap Purl (No. 53)
We don’t really need an update from Strap, whose life was planned out from the moment he came out of the womb. But I’ll provide one anyway. Strap follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a clergyman. When his dad joins the Lord for good in 1971, Strap takes over as lead pastor at the church, where he still gets down on one knee and waits for God to tell him what to do next.
Everett Flatch (No. 21)
Everett is the toughest son of a bitch Hickory has ever known. In the section finals, his dad comes storming onto the court, drunk. Everett handles it like a champ, by literally beating the hell out of those bastards from Terhune. He punches a Terhune player in the face (if you play or coach for Hickory and haven’t punched someone in the face during a game, are you even trying?), which leads to him getting chucked into a trophy case. His shoulder gets cut up and he has to get stitches. And when the wound reopens during the next game, Everett shrugs off a trainer and tries to stay in. He’s the hard-nosed enforcer on a team led by pretty boys who use pomade, and he selflessly plays his role while also dealing with his dad’s issues at home.
Life is never easy for Everett, but he doesn’t look for pity. Taking care of his dad gives him purpose, and he does it up until his father’s death. Years later, Everett is still trying to figure out what’s next. He’s twice divorced and has two kids he rarely sees. He’s been laid off a few times, including when Whit’s butcher shop went under. He’s been in and out of jail for bar fights, petty theft, and “some bullshit I don’t want to talk about.” He was dealt a terrible hand that left him broken and flawed, but he’s doing the best he can.
Myra tells Coach Dale that she got her bachelor’s degree and was in graduate school before her father died and her mother got sick, which prompted her to drop out and come back to Hickory. Her life then revolves around trying to get herself and everyone she knows out of town. She talks about how she almost made it out, how she wants Jimmy to get out, and how she keeps her guard up with Dale because no sane person would voluntarily choose to live in Hickory. When the romance between Myra and Dale that heats up toward the end of the movie turns into full-blown getting-it-on after the state championship, Myra makes plans for the two of them to get out of town for good. Myra is helping her mother on the farm, but when her mom dies, she says to Dale, they’ll move to Indianapolis and begin a new life.
Dale goes along with the plan because he’s not about to say no to a reliable source of sex in a town of, like, 30 people. But Dale, being the dog that he is, up and leaves Hickory in the middle of the night in 1953 and never returns. Myra moves to Lafayette, where she occasionally sees Jimmy and sends him letters that make Jimmy’s wife uncomfortable.
Coach Norman Dale
Here’s what the movie makes clear about Coach Dale: He won a (presumably Division III) national championship at Ithaca College before getting tagged with a lifetime ban from coaching at the NCAA level for punching his own player in the jaw. Two years after being kicked out of basketball, he joined the Navy, where he served as a chief petty officer when Cletus offered him the Hickory job.
This might seem pretty straightforward on the surface, but there are two things to keep in mind: (1) in 1951, chief petty officer was the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Navy; and (2), the U.S. was in the thick of the Korean War at the time. So while Dale is portrayed as a down-on-his-luck coach who served his country and now wants to get back to doing what he loves, my bullshit detectors are going off left and right. You mean to tell me that an East Coast guy joined the Navy in 1941, fought through all of World War II, and spent 10 years working his way up only to abandon his post at the height of the Korean War so he can coach high school basketball in Bumfuck, Indiana? Are you shitting me? Something tells me punching a player in the face isn’t the only thing Dale is trying to hide.
Sketchy past aside, it should be noted that Dale is an awful in-game coach. He runs some solid practices and will be remembered as a legendary motivator, but up until the state championship, the only piece of strategy he gives his team is to pass four times before a player can shoot. Hickory’s defense is complete dogshit for pretty much the entire season, which is noteworthy given that the townspeople tell Dale, upon taking the job, that the players are used to playing zone. And yet at no point in the season does Dale — who hasn’t coached in 12 years — think to try zone, even though his team gets in foul trouble basically every game and can’t stop anybody to save their lives.
But that’s the thing about Dale: He thinks he’s a coaching savant who is going to save the world by teaching adolescent boys to throw crisp chest passes. He’s no-nonsense from the start and gets confrontational whenever anyone tries to make his life easier. He sticks to his principles and never deviates from what he believes is right, because losing the right way is better than winning the wrong way. All of that sounds great, but there’s one problem: As soon as Jimmy joins the team, Dale flushes his principles down the drain and never mentions the four-pass rule again.
Look, I get it — Hoosiers is as much about Dale learning from his mistakes as it’s about an underdog basketball team. But are we sure Dale actually becomes a better person? Are we sure all of the changes that he undergoes in the movie aren’t self-serving? Does he really give a shit about the kids he’s coaching?
That’s the thing to consider when envisioning the next 30 years. In the press conference before the state championship, Dale is asked point-blank: “Will you be back at Hickory next year?” And when he doesn’t answer, Myra grabs a megaphone and yells “It’s a good question!” … and he still doesn’t respond! That tells me all I need to know. Aside from running away from whatever the hell caused him to ditch the Navy, he took the Hickory job solely to prove to himself that he could still coach. Winning the state title is enough.
Even though he quits coaching, I say Dale keeps teaching at Hickory High so that he can bang Myra and cruise around town like he’s a goddamn messiah. For about a year or so, everyone loves him. But then, as they say in Hickory, he gets too big for his britches. His larger-than-life persona becomes grating, and everyone remembers why they hated him in the first place. Dale sees the writing on the wall and departs Hickory in the middle of the night, leaving a note on his pillow for Myra to read when she wakes up. Unable to go back to the East Coast because of the war crimes he committed in Korea, Dale heads west. He settles in Dodge City, Kansas, where he dies in 1978 at the age of 69.